Protective clothing is vital for huge numbers of workers in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

What the clothing is – and why it is used by the worker – differs markedly. However, one thing which is constant is that having the right protection to wear for each risk-assessed task is of vital importance.

Protective clothing is not just designed to protect a worker’s own clothes and body; they can have other necessary functions, such as keeping contaminants off the skin, resisting cuts and abrasions, providing warmth in cold conditions and keeping a worker cool in extreme heat, and keeping contamination out of products.

Technical fabrics

Fabrics manufactured for non-aesthetic purposes, where function is the primary criterion, are called technical fabrics. Protective technical fabrics are found in applications that protect against burns (flames and convective and radiant heat, such as those experienced by firefighters), electric arc flash discharge (plasma explosion, a risk for electric companies), molten metal impacts (foundries), metal sparks (welding), and acid environments (petrochemical, gas, refineries, chemical). They are also used in astronaut suits.

The main target of these fabrics is to improve the safety of personnel in their workplaces. They can be life-savers. That is why they are mainly used in the manufacture of PPE clothing. The demand for these fabrics is growing around the world, thanks to the increasing recognition of the need for safety at work.

However, despite its prevalence in so many workplaces, protective clothing is actually low on the list of measures used to safeguard workers. Other measures should be considered first. For example, employers should first consider eliminating or isolating a hazard, or controlling and minimising exposure to it.

If all other methods are deemed unsuitable or inadequate, then protective clothing can – and should – be used. Essentially, an employer must provide suitable protection from the relevant work hazards that cannot be eliminated, isolated or reduced to safe levels.

These hazards are many and various, but include sparks and hot particles, molten metal splashes, direct flame, radiant heat, solvents, acids, alkalis, oil, grease, blood and body fluids, and asbestos fibres. There are of course many other hazardous substances.

While the hazards come in many varieties, so do the protective clothes. One common feature is that they are made from tightly-woven material. In many industrial environments there is a requirement for the use of clothes containing specialist fabrics. These are made of strong materials such as kevlar, woven in ways that suit the specific use.

Many are also made to feature maximum comfort, so they allow workers to carry out their job. Some advanced fabrics offer strong protection against such hazards as knife slashes and pathogenic bacteria.

Another issue to consider is high visibility. Fluorescent textiles are in high demand as many users need to be visible during dark hours for various safety reasons.

“while there are many protective coveralls available on the market, not all of them provide the same level of performance, even if they are certified for the same type of protection”

Selection of protective clothing

With so many varieties of protective clothing on the market, the process of selection is rarely an easy one.

Take protective coveralls as an example. These are intended to protect against contamination from hazards in your working environment, ranging from liquid and solid chemicals, oils, non-toxic liquids and airborne substances, through to dusts and fibres. In some working environments, such as laboratories and crime scenes, such protective clothing is required to stop human contamination of the area with hair, shed skin or clothing fibres.

When selecting appropriate chemical protective clothing, several factors must be taken into account such as the type of task being performed, the nature and concentration of the substance used, and also the best possible balance between protection and comfort.

While there are many protective coveralls available on the market, not all of them provide the same level of performance, even if they are certified for the same type of protection.

There are a multitude of chemical compounds that can cause adverse effects on unprotected skin, from simple dermatitis to a complex variety of toxic effects. European CE categories for protective clothing differ in terms of risks and certification requirements – the higher the risk, the higher certification requirements are.

So, what are the different types of protective clothing? Type 1 is the highest level protection, being ‘gas tight’, fully encapsulating suits that are completely sealed against the environment. Type 2 is a similar construction but defined as ‘non-gas tight’ and requiring a positive pressure to be maintained inside the suit by means of pumping air into it.

There are various other levels of liquid protection, relating generally to the spray intensity and volume of liquid. The odd one out is protection against hazardous dry particles (dust) and is defined as Type 5.

These specified types of protection – Types 1 to 6 – are all defined as ‘Class 3’ products in the overall classification for all PPE. This (Class 3) is the highest level of protection for complex products, while Class 1 is the lowest and relates to simple products and PPE which is not designed to protect against hazards.

Class 1 is for coveralls worn by people not working with substances such as hazardous chemicals, but needing to protect their own clothes against getting dirty, or wearing a hat for harnessing loose hair to prevent entanglement in machinery.

In addition, the protective clothing must be manufactured to a consistent quality, and the manufacturer must either hold a quality certificate, such as ISO 9000, or be subject to regular inspection by the notified body.

Nine steps to protective clothing

When your employees use protective clothing, it is vital that you have a rigorous selection process. Without this, there is the risk of you selecting the wrong clothing, which could fail to provide adequate protection.

When choosing chemical protective coveralls, remember that the more detailed your risk analysis, the greater the precision in deciding which protective suit is to be used.

Consider these nine steps:

  1. Hazard identification. What is the hazard? Is it a gas, liquid, vapour or particle? What are the levels of concentration, humidity and temperature? Are there any risks of heat, flame or explosion?
  2. Determine the minimum levels of protection needed. Take into account the type classification and examine the results obtained from the type and material test as indicated in the manufacturer’s product documentation. Only by taking these detailed results into consideration is it possible to make conclusions on the levels of protection the garment provides.
  3. Assess the hazard toxicity. Knowing the toxicity or consequences of short or long-term exposure to the hazard is essential. Assess whether a suit that just passes a certain Type is sufficient protection. For example, a suit designed to have higher exposure Type performance, such as Type 3 or 4, is likely to offer a much lower amount of particle inward leakage, particularly if additional taping is used, and will be a significantly better barrier than certain Type 5 suits that in some cases may just meet the standard.
  4. Determine protective performance requirements of the fabric and seam. Consider that liquid chemical penetration tests are conducted over a time period of just 60 seconds. In order to assess whether a fabric protects the wearer for longer exposure periods, the permeation data, gathered from tests lasting up to eight hours, should be consulted.
  5. Determine mechanical performance requirements. A barrier is only worthwhile if it withstands working conditions and remains intact for the duration of the task. In addition, selecting the right size is essential to ensuring proper protection. Choosing the correct size is a prerequisite not just for greater safety, but also for greater comfort. Choosing the wrong size can have fatal consequences: if it’s too big it can get stuck in production machinery; if it’s too small it can tear or considerably restrict mobility.
  6. Comfort considerations. Protection is important, but so is comfort. Identifying the appropriate protective and mechanical performance while also maximising wearer comfort can contribute to wearer satisfaction and productivity. Key comforts frequently cited in wearer trials include freedom of movement, garment weight, the feel on the skin and breathability of the garment.
  7. Supplier selection. Protection, performance in use and comfort are key criteria, as is a manufacturer’s brand reputation for consistent quality.
  8. Identify the correct usage of the product. Be aware of product limitations as these can be a useful source of information on the correct use of the product. They may also raise important questions, such as whether additional taping is required, whether grounding requirements should be considered, the garment’s performance when exposed to temperatures and whether a doffing procedure is required that necessitates training to avoid contamination.
  9. Wear test. Once you’ve made a safe selection, putting a product to the test via wear trials is a wise step in the selection process to ensure it is the correct choice.

Other key issues that should be taken into account when selecting protective garments include the quality of the garment, its convenience and user-friendliness, environmental compatibility – safe and cost effective disposal – and its cost, although it is not recommended to make a decision based solely on price.

It is also important to note that with accessibility to global information it is possible to find products around the world. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that products selected conform to the correct product standards in the region that the coveralls are being worn. For example, protective coveralls approved for use in the United States will not necessarily conform to Middle East legislation, and failure to acknowledge this could leave workers at risk.

Design and comfort

It is widely accepted that the more comfortable a piece of personal protective equipment is, the more likely the worker will wear it. Often, those needing to wear protective coveralls are wearing them on a daily basis and, in some situations, for an extended period of time. Manufacturers of disposable coveralls therefore invest heavily in the design and comfort of their garments.

There are particular areas with protective coveralls that take more design consideration, such as the hood and neck area and the movement around the arms. Recent introductions to the market from experienced manufacturers include sophisticated hood designs that perfectly fit the contours of the face and neck, and therefore reduce exposure risk and increase comfort.

“it is widely accepted that the more comfortable a piece of personal protective equipment is, the more likely the worker will wear it”

Attention is also paid to sleeve design to ensure a perfect fit, even when arms are extended above the head. These design improvements mean that uncomfortable thumb loops are not needed and allow for greater comfort and flexibility. As often noticed by users in wear trials, garments designed this way are extremely comfortable to wear and provide greater freedom of movement.

The design of protective coveralls is not just about comfort: they must protect too, and so increased focus is on ensuring these garments are easy to seal and seams are secure. Again, designs of recent coveralls include features such as a glued-in – rather than stitched – elastic waist to reduce the number of seams, giving it greater strength and less opportunity for inward leakages.

In addition, fabrics used often maximise breathability and wearer comfort while offering superb protection.

Donning the coverall

While you may not think too hard about how you put on your own clothing in the morning, putting on a protective coverall correctly is instrumental to the performance of the garment. Once the appropriate coverall has been chosen, a contamination-free changing room should be made available, away from the workplace, for workers to get dressed. Any objects that could obstruct work should be removed from pockets and left in a secure environment.

Then comes the process of putting on the coverall. It may seem obvious, but following the correct process ensures maximum performance. Failure to do so can leave gaps which, for example, could lead to substances coming into contact with skin.

Begin by sitting on a chair and removing your footwear. Then, carefully put your feet into the legs of the coverall one by one, before putting on and securely lacing your safety shoes or boots. At this point you should put on the correct gloves for the application. If you are using two sets of gloves, put the first set on now. Standing up, pull the suit up to your waist and place your arms into the sleeves. Before zipping up the suit, put on any goggles or masks and ensure they are fitted correctly, are comfortable and there are no gaps. Pull the hood up over your head and zip the coverall to the very top, pushing the zip down to lock. If you are wearing a second set of gloves put these on over the first pair of gloves, covering the wrist and sleeves of the coverall. It is recommended that all gaps and joins should be sealed with adhesive tape, including the ends of the gloves and around the face where the hood meets the facemask.

A colleague should be present to check that the suit is donned correctly and that all gaps are sealed. Following these simple steps will help to ensure the protective clothing is effective.

After all, that is why companies are investing in it – to ensure workers are protected. Concerns for general worker safety have resulted in an entire industry devoted to personal protective equipment. This equipment includes everything from chemical protective garments, suits and firefighters’ turnout gear, to industrial fire retardant garments, bullet-resistant vests, and respirators.

There are significant revisions and additions to many of the existing standards for worker protective clothing in the areas of chemical protection, fire protection and bullet-resistant garments, and it is important for management to keep abreast of national laws and international best practice, for example EU regulations, if in the EEC, and those of the specific countries in which they operate.